Whose Labour playbook?

Democratic reform must be at the heart of any Labour government

Labour in the political wilderness for 13 years. Sound familiar? This was 1964. Former Tory leader Harold Macmillan claimed, “you’ve have never had it so good”. Realities spoke otherwise. The economy was shaky, unemployment rising, industry antiquated, uncompetitive, and lacking in investment. The post-war generation expected something better.

Labour’s new leader, Harold Wilson, who had come from the left of the party (suspended in the early 1950s for opposing dental charges) was the man with a new vision for Britain.

Branding the Tory period as “13 wasted years” Wilson was clear about an alternative. Labour’s Manifesto “Let’s Go with Labour for the New Britain” was built around the idea of a national economic plan with both sides of industry operating in partnership with government. So, workers were to have a voice. Strange that Labour’s current leader, when co-editor of Socialist Alternatives (1986-87), promoted workers control and industrial democracy as a key theme of his writing. This now seems lost in the mists of time.

Labour’s 1964 Manifesto also called for “a revolution in our education system” (this was to herald the birth of comprehensive schools and an end of the 11+ exam) and scrapping prescription charges. Public ownership was pledged for steel and water supply and new industries were to be developed with a ministry for technology. There was a plan for transport, a national incomes policy, 400,000 houses for rent or sale, protection for renters and an end to colonialism. The conclusion of the manifesto was “the morality of money and property is a dead and deadening morality. In its place we must again reassert the value of service above private profit and private gain”.

The theme was modernisation; the “white heat of technological revolution” was to be unleashed. It worked. Labour won a narrow majority.

Wilson went on to lead Labour to three more election victories, with the interruption of the Heath regime from 1970 to 1974.

So what does this tell us about where Labour should be today? It underlines the need for a new vision and policies that can inspire voters that a better future lies ahead. Labour’s Liverpool conference was low on policies and high on rhetoric as Peter Kenyon explains. On the floor motions for public ownership of rail and energy were passed overwhelmingly alongside endorsement of Labour’s New Deal for Working People. However, Starmer’s strategy seems to be: say as little as possible and let the Tories lose it. Much of his stance is from the Blair playbook, but in less auspicious economic conditions. Is this good enough? Many are saying no. Although Labour won in Rutherglen and Hamilton Labour’s vote barely increased on the previous election. Similarly, the wins in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth were based on Tory stay-at-home voters. As Bryn Jones suggests this gives Labour no room for complacency and also underlines the need for a radical vision and policy alternatives to win new voters.

Prem Sikka deep dives into the problem of rigid fiscal policy by arguing that there are many ways Labour could raise funding for a myriad of green social investment programmes from  ending corporate tax avoidance and evasion to small increases in taxes on the very rich.

Starmer may be seeking to draw more from the Blair playbook than that of Wilson but it is clear voters want an end to 13 years of austerity and the current cost of living squeeze.

Sunak’s government is running on empty, desperately seeking a rescue narrative. Could it be as champion of motorists against speed limits and air pollution measures. Or the usual scapegoating of migrants, ramping up fear of others in “culture wars”.

The Tories have already ended consensus on achieving net-zero by abandoning previous targets on electric vehicles and green-lighting further oil and gas drilling. An area where Starmer really needs to end bi-partisanship is on Palestine. An immediate ceasefire is needed and support for massive humanitarian aid for Gaza as Don Flynn argues. Chartist has for decades supported a Palestinian state, an end to the Israeli occupation and settlements. Starmer will alienate hundreds of thousands of supporters unless he rows back from views which seemingly support Israeli war crimes in Gaza. We are with UN general secretary Antonio Guterras in condemning the Hamas atrocities in Israel but we also understand, with him, the context of 56 years of occupation and oppression. A blank cheque for Netanyahu to continue a murderous assault on innocent Palestinian people, including over a million children, must stop.

Just as we stand for Palestinian self determination so too we stand with Ukraine for its independence and freedom from Russian imperial aggression. Bohdan Ferens of Ukraine’s Social platform makes an impassioned plea for medical, humanitarian and military aid in Ukraine’s hour of need to turn back the Russian occupation.

Putin is playing for time and war weariness. The success of Donald Tusk’s coalition in Poland in defeating the ultra right Law and Justice party is a beacon against the rightward drift seen in Slovakia, Hungary, Italy and Sweden. Ana Oppenheim reports on the likely implications of a change of government in Warsaw.

Democratic reform must be the heart of any Labour government. Chartist has produced a special “New Democracy” supplement outlining the measures needed to transform our broken systems. MPs John McDonnell, Cat Smith and Nadia Whittome along with others propose the measures needed to move Britain into the 21st Century, including rapid action on proportional representation in Westminster elections. Elsewhere Victor Anderson questions the value of citizens’ assemblies (particularly in relation to climate action). Phil Vellender spotlights the Tory erosion of the right to protest while Clive Lewis MP warns of the wider threat to our hard won democratic liberties by this desperate government.

The people are crying out for change. Now is the time for bold policies based on Labour’s values of social justice, equality, democracy and redistribution. Will Starmer get the message? Whose playbook will he choose?

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